A team of faculty and doctoral students is redesigning early childhood education through the San Antonio district-initiated collaboration with the College of Education and the Agency and Young Children Research Collaborative, called Dynamic Innovation for Young Children. Team members are restructuring learning so that it’s project-based and fosters children’s agency—or choice—in their activities.
Child-centered learning is a departure from classrooms in which children are compelled to sit at desks and receive information rather than be active participants, and it can challenge the way some educators have been taught to instruct young students. That’s why the district, which completed its first year of collaboration in May, began with professional development of educators.
Says Associate Professor Jennifer Adair, whose work on fostering children’s agency is a foundation of the project, “Teachers have to learn that when kids are noisy and moving around—in pre-k, kinder or a first-grade classroom, that’s where a lot of learning is taking place. And the teachers have to know that their principals and superintendent understand that they need to be hearing noise and seeing movement in the classroom, that it’s OK and supported.”
The initiative is not about a curriculum change, but culture change, says Adair. Engaging principals and teachers is key in transforming campuses. That’s why the first year of the five-year-long project was about working “intently with six schools through professional development that included select teachers, their principals, district leaders, the children and their families,” says Adair.
Alejandra Barraza, Ph.D. ’17, was the catalyst for change in the district. She’s the principal of Henry Carroll Early Childhood Education Center in San Antonio’s East Side neighborhood. She implemented the learning principles in her school during her doctoral studies with Adair. Barraza’s work increased engagement by students and their families, and caught the attention of district leaders, Associate Superintendent Pauline Dow and Superintendent Pedro Martinez. Dow and Adair co-lead the districtwide project, under the supervision of Martinez.
These San Antonio school district leaders, says Adair, “were willing to transform campuses and give them the same dynamic, sophisticated learning you’d find at a private school. They were willing to let their teachers and principals co-construct the experiences without a cookie cutter curriculum. That’s a lot a of trust.”